Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Feet of Clay

Feet of clay, Roman votive offerings, via Episcopal Cafe.

There's a weird maneuver going on to make Peter Navarro, the bogus China expert Jared Kushner discovered on Amazon, into a coronavirus hero, on the basis of warning memos he's said to have submitted to the White House showing a prescient understanding of the threat: one from 29 January, which Maggie Haberman/New York Times got hold of—
A top White House adviser starkly warned Trump administration officials in late January that the coronavirus crisis could cost the United States trillions of dollars and put millions of Americans at risk of illness or death.
The warning, written in a memo by Peter Navarro, President Trump’s trade adviser, is the highest-level alert known to have circulated inside the West Wing as the administration was taking its first substantive steps to confront a crisis that had already consumed China’s leaders and would go on to upend life in Europe and the United States.
—and one that's showed up in a piece by Jonathan Swan and Margaret Talev at Axios from 23 February calling for allocation of $3 billion to spending on PPE supplies, development of drug therapies (not mentioning hydroxychloroquine, which Navarro has recently been pushing)  and vaccine, and Covid-19 testing, which the article claims Navarro wrote, but permit me to express my doubts on that subject, because no actual evidence that he did is offered, beyond Axios's assertion.

I don't think it's a hugely important story—we've got plenty of evidence already of Trump ignoring good advice over the 70 days it took him to get to a place where he could acknowledge (fitfully) that we had a serious problem—but I do think it's about something that everybody's missing, which is the illustration it provides of access journalism as a way for subjects, in this case Navarro, to manipulate the news to make themselves look good.

Because it seems pretty clear to me that Navarro leaked these memos as part of his own personal position-jockey strategy, as a way of glorifying his own role in the war against the plague.

In the 29 January memo, through which the papers are presenting him as a lonely voice aware of the threat (he was well behind Ron Klain and Joe Biden, who issued warnings on 22 and 27 January respectively), he was mainly making a pitch for his own anti-China agenda—the memo was submitted to the NSC under the subject line "Re: Travel Ban to China"—in opposition to the support from people like Biden for a more comprehensive approach. At a time when the virus had already appeared in 20 countries including the US, it was too late, but it was the approach NSC and Trump adopted, while the administration continued to fumble with the question of testing and ignore requests from Alex Azar's HHS to focus on medical supplies:
In late January and early February, leaders at HHS sent two letters to the White House Office of Management and Budget asking to use its transfer authority to shift $136 million of department funds into pools that could be tapped for combating the coronavirus. Azar and his aides also began raising the need for a multibillion-dollar supplemental budget request to send to Congress.
Yet White House budget hawks argued that appropriating too much money at once when there were only a few U.S. cases would be viewed as alarmist.
The 23 February memo, a couple of weeks later than the second HHS letter, is a latish contribution to that argument, and it's not quite obviously connected with Navarro, who was still focused on his personal combat with China. as Politico reported 26 February:
The White House’s director of trade and manufacturing policy and the administration’s other China hawks are pushing to use the coronavirus crisis to press U.S. companies to end their dependence on foreign suppliers.
It’s an outcome Navarro and other advocates of U.S. factories in the Trump administration have sought for the past three years — what they see as a core piece of President Donald Trump’s 2016 promise to bring manufacturing jobs back home.
But the memo doesn't discuss China, or dependence on foreign suppliers, at all. It's consistent with the aim of encouraging the home-grown medical supplies industry, demanding increased government spending on it, the bulk ($1.6 billion) on vaccine development, but it doesn't mention the America-First aspect as such, and it isn't billed as "from" Navarro, or anybody for that matter, but "through NSA, COS, COVID-19 TASK FORCE. If Navarro really did write it, or his staff assembled the budget details, it's hiding the purpose, and it seems intended to function more as a weapon in the war between Alex Azar, who's a member of the Covid-19 Task Force (Navarro isn't), and Mick Mulvaney (a deputy was running OMB for Mulvaney from beginning of January, but he was still COS until he lost the war and got the sack 31 March).

Now Navarro is getting some unwanted attention over his sycophantic support for the emperors chloroquine fantasy, so he's trying to make himself look good, and Haberman and Swan, always interested in cultivating a good leaker, jump for it.

I'm not even against the existence of this system: we can learn an awful lot from good leaks, of which Haberman's, as I often say, are among the best ever. But it is really imperative that somebody else in a different part of the ecosystem keep pointing out that the leaker, as opposed to whistleblower, may be a self-serving, officious fool.

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